Cafe Reviews

West by Southeast Asia

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Adventurers can also get their thrills from the beverage list. To Coke-swilling Americans, Vietnamese thirst quenchers have to be the oddest on Earth. If salty plum sodas or soybean milk drinks sound a little too exotic, I suggest falling back on the iced lemon tea, a sweet, refreshing drink that doesn't push the edge of the weirdness envelope.

Looking for outstanding Vietnamese fare? As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, it might as well be Spring.

Pink Pepper Thai Cuisine, 245 East Bell, Phoenix, 548-1333. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 4:30 p.m. to close, seven days a week.

If you grew up in Phoenix, you may have had your first taste of Thai food at Pink Pepper. This venerable operation (there are two other branches) was one of the Valley's ethnic-restaurant pioneers, giving many desert dwellers their first crack at foreign dishes that weren't wrapped in a tortilla, topped with marinara sauce or accompanied by egg rolls.

But time seems to have passed by the Pink Pepper. Fare pitched to novices a decade ago may once have seemed exotic, but now it seems uncommonly tame. The hard-hitting fragrances of Thai cuisine--lemongrass, cilantro, lime leaf, galangal--lack power. Nor will diners find much in the way of culinary flair or imagination.

At the Bell Road location, the decor cues suggest that the Pink Pepper's customers aren't likely to be homesick natives looking for an old-country hangout. That's country music coming out of the speakers, and I don't mean Thai country music, either. (The Monkees and the Beatles also entertain.) The few knickknacks--some vases, an occasional print--are light on home-country reminders as well.

I've never been much of a fan of Thai appetizers--they're usually not nearly as interesting as the main dishes. The Pink Pepper's Kanom Jeeb confirmed my theory. These dumplings had a woeful, store-bought quality. Moreover, they arrived tough and chewy, with curled edges, as if they had been microwaved instead of steamed or skillet-fried. What's going on here? Nam Sod is a somewhat more appealing way to edge into dinner--ground pork unassertively seasoned with ginger and lime.

While Thai starters don't turn me on, Thai soups do. When they're done right, these broths have no equal. But the Pink Pepper's models are a disappointment. First of all, they don't come bubbling in those big, Sterno-fired tureens. Instead, they're served in individual cups. Second, they taste like they were ladled out of a ten-gallon metal soup container. Tom Yum Gai is hardly the "savory hot and sour soup with chicken, mushroom and Thai herb" promised by the menu. It's a watery broth with almost no flavor, sparsely stocked with a few forlorn bits of poultry. The Tom Yum Ga-Ti is partially redeemed by the flavors of chile and coconut milk, but it's still a pale version of what it ought to be.

Main dishes are perfectly serviceable, but too often perfectly forgettable. Flaming fish with spicy lemon sauce, for example, sounds like it has possibilities. But it's just pieces of orange roughy and veggies warmed by a Sterno flame, moistened by a routine lemon sauce. The Thai barbecued chicken also falls short of rival local versions. You get half a crisp bird teamed with two perky sauces, hot and sour and hot chile. But the chicken itself is not distinctively flavored.

If you're searching for a bit more flavor wallop, you might try Nuah Yang, a beef dish whose best feature is a zippy sauce spiced up with ginger, garlic, chile and sesame seeds. Too bad the beef itself is tough.

For more complete satisfaction, go for the Mussaman Curry, which shows off the Indian influence on Thai cuisine. It combines chicken and potatoes in a mild, fragrant curry sauce. Thailand's cooks also borrow from China, and the Spicy Eggplant demonstrates their prowess. It's the only dish here that shook me by the lapels, lots of pulpy eggplant in a deep, dark, rich garlic sauce that I ordered spicy hot.

(Note to the uninitiated: Thai food may be the hottest on the planet. At your command, the kitchen will spice up your dishes on a scale of one [air] to ten [call the paramedics]. Numbness starts at seven.)

Still, for every Spicy Eggplant, there are too many snoozers like Pan-Fried Seafood, a dull blend of scallos, squid, shrimp, two mussels and veggies in a one-note chile sauce. Even the national noodle dish, Pad Thai, rice noodles stocked with chicken, shrimp, scallions and sprouts, failed to ignite my taste buds.

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Howard Seftel